Unreal Engine 3, by way of the Unreal Development Kit, is now available free for non-commercial use. That means that not only are its capabilities for games accessible, but all sorts of other possibilities for art, visualization, and, yes, live visuals. Unreal is scriptable, customizable, and powerful, making this pretty massive news. The feature list is deep as you might expect. Among the highlights:

  • Video support
  • Programmable shaders, particle effects, and many other goodies
  • Physics support, via PhysX
  • A UI for managing and editing assets and content
  • Animation and cinematic features for making it easier to add motion
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Scripting language

Networking support means that adding OpenSoundControl messages or other integration with performers and music and visual performance tools is equally possible.

With the free release of the UDK, Epic is also releasing additional documentation, like the full source code for the sample Whizzle game, seen here.

The license is fairly liberal. It’s not remotely open source — any modification to the engine itself is prohibited. On the other hand, even as an advocate for open source, there really isn’t anything in the open source domain quite like this. That doesn’t necessarily mean Unreal Engine is your best choice for every project, but if you really want a full-blown engine — with all of the AI and graphics eye candy and whiz-bang features — without paying some massive license fee, the UDK stands out. True, you can’t reverse-engineer anything, but the appeal here I suspect would be having all of these hard tasks done for you. Commercial licenses are reasonable, too, starting at US$99.

If you do want open source, though, you can get a previous-generation engine in the form of the Quake 3 project. And for live visuals, that might be more than sufficient. Other options would be looking at open-source game frameworks like OGRE and jMonkeyEngine. For experimental work, sometimes having less in the engine can be useful.

But that doesn’t take away from this being big news. It’ll be interesting to see if folks in the performance and creative communities give this a go. And for independent game developers, it’s utterly huge.

If you look at this framework, let us know what you think and what you make (or what you make of the alternatives).


Thanks to Orubasarot for the tip!

Updated: The awesome Unity 3D has a free license, announced on Halloween, as noted by a number of readers and Blender Nation. It’s “free as in beer,” not open source, as is Unreal Engine. But Unity is also built on open source technology (Mono, which gives it its cross-platform savvy and elegant coding), and integrates with tightly free tools (Blender). The good news is, you can use Unity for commercial projects as well as free ones. And Unity is especially modern and artist-friendly, a favorite toolkit for many of those working with 3D engines for the first time. The bad news is, in exchange for the commercial capabilities, the free license does not include all the capabilities – most notably for us, video is missing. Then again, it’s free to try out and evaluate, and if you do need to grow, you may decide to pony up for that commercial license. Anyone with some Unity experience, I’d love to cover this (and Unreal) for CDM; get in touch.

Unity license and version comparisons

Commercial and free projects alike, it’s an insanely good time to be a developer in the 3D and gaming worlds. Business in the game industry may be sagging and you may get a lot less sleep as an artist, but we do really have some great gifts on the tech side.


  • http://www.digitalfunfair.co.uk gavspav

    Hasn't Unity 3d gone free as well?

  • http://www.kormyen.com kormyen

    @gavspav Yep. Unity3d Indie went free just a little before UDK was released for free I believe.

    Unity is good… but after a quick play with UDK I'm really really interested in learning how to use it.

  • Orubasarot

    I've never been the reverse engineering type, I'm fine with using tools that are already there to get what I need. What's most exciting about this is the possibility for some kind of narrative with live visuals.

    An easy start is just to make a few rooms, add sounds, and fly through the environment. Also dig around for the fracturing tool, breaking stuff is always fun.

  • Orubasarot

    Oh yeah I forgot, the best part is I get to be like Alva Noto's team of super nerds, but without actually knowing about anything besides videogames.

    In some ways UDK is to vvvv or Touch Designer as Fruity Loops is to Max/MSP. Making a room, adding a light, and running through it is just as easy as a lil' bit of boomtisk on the step sequencer, but it can get pretty deep from there on.

  • http://jim1000tongues.net sbn..

    Yeah, good stuuf. I wonder if this was prompted by Unity's move? It looks like the middleware companies are finally realizing that even the "educational" per-seat licenses are too restrictive, so if they want Uni courses and similar to train people in their tech, they need to let students take it home. An exciting time to be into realtime 3D, for sure.

    BTW, if you do care about the source being open, here are a few suggestions that are all a bit less intimidating than OGRE and friends:

    Darkplaces – Quake 1 derivative w/ Doom3-like features, LGPL license IIRC. Runs Nexuiz and various indie projects. Pretty much focused on indoor environments. If I were making a traditional shooter, I'd have a serious look at this one.

    Irrlicht – Shooter-like engine written from scratch. Has a reputation of being very fast and portable (OGL / DX / software rasterizer). Reads Quake3 maps as well as various terrain maps etc. BSD or MIT license (I just remember that it's "more free" than GPL).

    Panda3D – Actively developed, very portable engine. It has a less AAA feel about it, but has real-world applications in education, simulation, and also some games, most notably a few casual MMO's. Control it through Python or pure C++. Modified BSD license.

    Finally my favourite, which is sort of in a limbo due to Blender currently undergoing a major overhaul and all dev resources going towards plugging non-realtime stuff back in for the current open movie, Durian.

    Blender Game Engine – fast and powerful prototyping engine (once you "get" Blender). Controlled through nodal logic and / or Python scripting, with soft- and rigidbody physics pretty much being plug-n-play. Recently got video texture support (streaming / cam / video file / virtual cameras in the scene), as well as shadows and customizable GLSL. Someone even added support for dome / planetarium rendering, something that might extend to various projection mapping techniques in the output stage, along with various 3D options like anaglyph & dual-head stereo (set up polarized projectors at your own leisure).

    Especially, Python as an option is nice since you can plug in pretty much any resource you can think of – Wiimote, network data, Arduino, OSC, MIDI. If you can think of it, there's probably a module for it.

  • http://jim1000tongues.net sbn..

    Forgot to mention, those are of course all completely cross-platform. Work is even underway on iPhone ports for some of them.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Thanks for the Unity tip; I had missed that.

    @sbn: Yeah, totally. It's worth doing a full round-up of those open source options. My point is just that you can't do a direct A-to-B comparison; you definitely get a lot more goodies in the commercial tools. On the other hand, I rather like that many of the open options are more lightweight and flexible, rather than being a full-blown game engine with very specific assumptions as Unity is. So, tradeoffs are tradeoffs.

    I've also been looking lately at jReality. It's not a "game" engine per se but so far, it beats the other Java options out of the water. And, heck, maybe eventually you want to make a game with slliptical coordinate systems. ;)

  • http://jim1000tongues.net sbn..

    Wow, jReality looks tasty! And yes, I like the idea of subverting the commercial game tools into unintended uses.

    There's something to be said for Processing's performance restrictions as a creative limitation, too. You need a basic grasp of 3D math to use that for anything interesting, though.

    For Blender, I just read the good news that Benoit Bolsee is revamping the logic system. The nodal logic for Blender 2.5 should be more freeform and look a bit like Quartz Composer / Max, very exciting for visualists experienced with that paradigm. I understand that the Crysis mod tools have something like this already.

    Maybe we should round up people using the main contenders, and suggest a friendly realtime visuals shootout? I'd be willing to bat for Blender, as would a few others I think. We could even stipulate open (CC) source files, and documentation of the process. Just Thinking aloud here, but that would really motivate me to provide some examples.

  • http://www.vdmokstati.com vdmo Kstati

    Hey Peter,…. There are not enough hours in a day to apply yourself to all the cool stuff that is happening…how do you manage? :)

    … I guess that's a sign of a very healthy multi-diverse visual applications developments that are happening everywhere….

  • Jake

    The UDK is PC only. :(

  • http://www.burst-tv.net mike wilson

    looks wicked – maybe could take over the graphics part of vvvv in some ways. however, is there any way to connect them? Seeing as it's a game engine I can't see anything about OSC or MIDI control which is hardly surprising given that it's a game engine. Somehow getting tracking info into it would be handy.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    UDK supports UDP and TCP network communication, so OSC is absolutely possible (or you could just skip actual OSC and send UDP packets directly). That means working with vvvv is totally possible.

    @Jake: Yep, UDK = PC-only, meaning for Mac you should check out Unity, or any of the open source options.

    @vdmo: well, I'm not necessarily *on top of* everything, but thanks! I'm indebted to reader tips, in particular!

  • RobinMX

    Ah nice i'm already downloading it atm :P

    Btw if more 3D engines will join Unitys and Unreal Engine 3 i hope the nice Cryengine 2 will join xD Dreams may come true sooner or later.

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